Chapter 4: Conte Manor - Nicola's Secret
Veranese said nothing and did not move as the man approached her. She had a sudden urge to bare her teeth at the blue-eyed man, although the notion in and of itself seemed silly to her. Strangely enough, the young girl no longer felt any fear at the man's presence and, in fact, she felt inexplicably drawn to him in a way that she did not altogether like.
Once nearer to her, the man took a seat at the edge of the bed. Again, Veranese remained stoic but watched him warily. His attire was different from the last time she had seen him, but it was just as lavish as the last garments he had worn, if not made more so by the complimenting elegance of the room itself. He was holding a crystal glass in one hand, filled with a thick dark liquid that Veranese could smell even from a few feet away. It only further incited her hunger, but still she remained silent, almost instinctively knowing it was not her place to speak.
The man stole a quick glance at her, and Veranese locked her eyes with his own. She felt connected with him in an indescribable sense and almost longed for him to touch her. The feeling was altogether disconcerting and entirely unexpected. And then he spoke.
"My name is Nicola Marico Conte," he started haltingly in a manner that Veranese easily interpreted to be discomfort. It seemed he liked her just about as much as she liked him, and that clearly was not saying much for either of them. She returned his gaze with one of her own. He seemed to be expecting something from her, to be waiting for some form of response or acknowledgement. If he expected her to know his name, however, he would be sadly mistaken. Veranese was, for all intents and purposes, a peasant girl. She and Marietta tried their best to pay their debts and stay out of trouble, but they certainly were not at all acquainted with the nobility of the Calabrian region in the slightest.
Straightening her back as much as was possible with her arms still wrapped around her knees, the small girl looked him over once more before speaking. "Veranese Eliana De Luca," she responded. Typical of all peasant children, her surname was not an ancient family name but rather that of her father, Luca Giannan Rossi, and she knew it would not tell the man much by way of background about her. Marietta had always meant to change their surname, but it was required so infrequently of them by others in everyday life that she had soon forgotten about it.
The nobleman's discomfort was palpable and, although Veranese could not possibly fathom why her twelve year old self would make him nervous, she felt a mildly savage pleasure in it all, and thus remained silent, simply watching. It was he, after all, who had brought her to this place, away from her sister and everything with which she was familiar. And it would have to be he who initiated any sort of conversation between the two of them, she thought stubbornly. As far as she was concerned, she had been kidnapped, and she had no intention of cooperating with her captor.
The man, this Nicola Conte, shifted slightly to face her and extended the glass and its contents toward her. "Drink. You need nourishment," he said in what to Veranese seemed a rather stiff manner. She wanted to refuse out of principle. Despite her hunger, why should she gratefully accept anything from someone who had caused her fright and pain only just the night before? Her neck still burned, and she could almost feel his strong hands against her face and shoulder, pinning her to the wall of her small home.
But Nicola seemed to have some inexplicable form of power over her. She watched almost in disbelief as her hands seemed to reach of their own accord and take the glass he extended out to her. Never allowing her gaze to leave his own, Veranese slowly and obediently lifted the glass with both hands to her lips as he had asked. She took a small sip, but just as quickly wrinkled her nose in disgust and set the cup on a nearby bed-side table, pushing it away from herself, a small frown gracing her tiny features. It was a strange feeling for her. She wanted nothing to do with the liquid and yet undeniably wanted more at the very same time.
"It is stale," she said accusingly as she turned back to the man at the edge of the bed, her eyes flashing indignantly. Even after the words left her lips, Veranese was still quite unsure what exactly she meant by them. She had gathered that the liquid was blood, which in and of itself would have thoroughly disgusted her only a few hours ago, but now a feeling of indignation at the notion that the man had insulted her tastes flooded through her instead.
Whatever she expected in the form of a reaction from this Nicola, it certainly was not the light chuckle and jovial expression she received. He looked at her with amusement and, for the first time this evening, the man's stance became more relaxed. "Less than twelve hours and you've already developed a sophisticated taste, my dear," he commented with a wry smile. He seemed friendly enough, but the man's eyes still held a cautious uncertainty that made Veranese wonder just what exactly was intimidating him. It couldn't possibly be her, she thought.
"Come here, child," he spoke once more and, despite her deepest reservations, Veranese found herself obeying without protest. Slowly she slid onto her knees, mindful of the delicate material of the dress she now wore, and scooted to her left until she was at Nicola's side. She had the peculiar urge to hug the man and wished that he would embrace her in return, for although she no longer felt any fear in his presence, Veranese desperately wanted to be comforted. For a moment, her eyes shifted back to the goblet on the bedside table. She hadn't liked it at all, but now she looked at it longingly. It held her attention as if it were speaking to her, and in a way she realized it was.
So intent was she on the heavy, crimson liquid now resting motionless in the crystal glass that Veranese failed to notice Nicola's slight movement beside her. "Veranese." At the sound of her name, she turned in surprise and met the gaze of the nobleman at her side. He seemed to be watching her with cold calculation behind his deep blue eyes, but a moment later, Nicola's eyes shifted downward and Veranese followed his gaze almost automatically. It appeared that he had rolled up the sleeve of one of his expensive shirts to the middle of his forearm. Her eyes were immediately drawn to his wrist, and she watched keenly, seeing the red and blue veins of his arm reveal themselves invitingly to her.
Unconsciously, Veranese licked her dry lips but froze in surprise as she felt her tongue run over an unfamiliarly sharp edge of tooth in her mouth. She looked at Nicola questioningly, but he said nothing, merely returning her gaze with one of his own. Slowly he raised his arm up to her and without thinking, she took it and quickly buried her teeth in the underside of his wrist. A small sound escaped the man's mouth, but Veranese hardly noticed it, for at that moment, blood filled her mouth, much like it had the previous night. This time, however, it was intoxicating to her, and Veranese closed her eyes almost dreamily in order to better savor the taste and the feelings that were washing over her.
It was Nicola's blood, yes, but she could taste another in it, as well. A woman, she thought without the need for much effort or debate. Nicola had been with a woman, had fed off her probably not long before he had arrived in this room. The thought was strangely pleasing to Veranese's senses, and she found she still wanted more as she felt Nicola gently pull away from her.
"Better, yes?" It seemed to be asked rhetorically, but nonetheless, Veranese nodded silently as she watched the man beside her remove a handkerchief from one of the pockets of his shirt and gently press it and tie it to the bleeding wound at his arm. She wanted more but dared not ask at the moment, for despite the satisfied smile Nicola was directing at her, Veranese saw a hint of pain behind his eyes and watched it curiously, unaware that her own eyes had turned an eerie shade of yellow as a result of her first feeding.
He returned her gaze calmly and reached for her with his now bandaged arm, sliding it around her small shoulders and pulling her toward him in a gentle embrace. "This is nothing, my dear," he said, speaking so softly it was almost inaudible. "Soon, I will take you with me and show you what it is truly meant to taste like." Veranese listened intently, finding she no longer held much anger for him. Instead, a peculiar sense of connection with the man, this Nicola Conte, was welling up within her. She had an acute sense of awareness that she was his and he hers. Nicola would protect her now if Marietta would not. Veranese sighed contently into his chest and closed her eyes once more, allowing Nicola to rock her gently in his arms. All the while, a black cat sat watching, curiously still at the scene it had just witnessed, its dark yellow eyes appearing to dance illuminated in the room's dim candlelight.